09/10/04

Everything's Great in Guelph — Unless You Ask Sainkho Namtchylak

Word has it, and sales figures show, that vocalists have secured a newfound clout in the jazz world. The branches of the vocal arts heard recently at the Guelph Jazz Festival, covering the avant-end of jazz, improvisational and other contemporary music turfs, offered some kind of antidote to the mainstream jazz vocal parade. Then again, we'd expect nothing less in Guelph, Ontario, a northern outpost of outness.

Blissfully free of commercial potential and ambition, the festival's focus on singers was manifested in the presence of several vocal envelope-pushers, among other musical offerings. The list included the experimental Tuvan-bred Sainkho Namtchylak (who had a onstage meltdown), the Native American singer Mary Redhouse (with Oliver Lake's Quartet), the inside-outside instincts of Canadians Kate Hammett-Vaughan, Christine Duncan and Jeane Hetu and the iconoclastic New Yorker Theo Bleckmann. From another corner, the captivating German singer Gabriela Hasler seized the vortex of Ursel Schlicht's Ex Tempore Project.

Now in its 11th year, the Guelph Jazz Festival has steadily secured its place in the ranks of important adventuring jazz fests in North America. A lovely college town an hour out of Toronto, Guelph is an ideal environment for a forward-thinking festival, with an attached colloquium organized by the University. Over the course of five days, concerts are held in an art center on campus, in churches and an elaborate new "Youth Music Centre" down by the river. On Saturday, the festival goes public in a large open tent in the modest but bustling downtown area. As expected, the 2004 model was rich with musical provocations and sounds you won’t readily find elsewhere (except the similar festival held each May in Victoriaville, Quebec, older than Guelph by a decade).

At the risk of generalizing, the Canadian vocalists found fruitful ideas at junctures between bedrock traditional worlds -- in both folk and jazz -- and outer limits of extended vocal practice, sensorial utterance and obsessive performance. That was particularly true of Duncan's fascinatingly paradoxically charismatic and amorphous personae.

Redhouse's role in the Lake Quartet traced a slithering line between melody and vocal effects, and between jazz, per se, and Native American musical vocabulary. She makes a persuasive link, worthy of deeper exploration.

And then there was the memorable Namtchylak evening, which did not proceed without incident (every festival needs at least one incident, to stave off business-as-usual complacency). Apparently perturbed by assorted grievances, the usually captivating Namtchylak proceeded to blandly sing an eight-note motif repeatedly for a good 45 minutes while bandmates William Parker and Hamid Drake rumbled furtively on bass and drums. Perceiving a sham or gesture of protest, a festival official willfully invited her offstage, which drew public criticisms from the performer for disrespectful treatment, transportation woes and unwanted sponsorship issues.

Once she was finally coaxed back into action, Namtchylak eased into an hour-long set. Finally, her magical culture-crossing attributes -- including unearthly sonics and throat-singing -- emerged, if haltingly, and were allowed to flourish once the musicians toned down their sonic fury.

Cleansing the communal palette following her performance in the sacred ambience of the Chalmers United Church, Andrew Cyrille's Pieces of Time percussion quartet then issued forth pure rhythmic joy and jazz-plus-African-oriented celebration.

Unorthodox voices aside, this was also a good year for masterful string players of the bowed sort. Virtuosic French bassist Joelle Leandre appeared in a beautifully empathetic duet with under-rated violinist India Cooke, both showing how the rigors of classical training and wild improv impulses can be artfully blended, and with humor in the veins.

And what can one say about bassist Barre Philips, who helped create the foundation of the European free-jazz scene and continues to show how it's properly, maturely done? Though ever the ensemble-sensitive player, Philips can't help but be a quiet-mannered scene-stealer, as he was again in a trio with French saxophonist Michel Lambert and Quebecoise drummer Lionel Garcin.

Violinist Jennifer Choi, too, is finding an ever-deeper accord between ambling improvisation and structural solidity, as she showed in her potent musical hookup with the fascinating trios led by drummer Susie Ibarra.

Archie Shepp gave an erudite and righteously indignant keynote speech before an overflow audience in the downtown Bookshelf theater. Among many other points made, Shepp complained that jazz critics are implicitly racist in their assessments, partly by insisting on using the term "jazz," which should no longer be used "because it's so frequently misconstrued and its heroes maligned."

That night, he appeared in a fiery all-star quartet with trombonist Roswell Rudd (who was especially on this night), Cyrille and bassist Reggie Workman. With all due respect to Shepp, it sure sounded like jazz they were playing.

The best of the Canadian acts, thought something of a departure from the typical Guelph festival aesthetic agenda, was Thom Gossage’s Other Voices. Drummer Gossage was at the center of an otherwise symmetrical, vaguely Ornette Coleman-inspired assembly of double guitars, saxes and acoustic basses, shifting in and out of structural focus. A kind of sad elegance marks the writing, while the rhythmic interactions often involve assorted push-pull experiments in time, making for music at once inventive and expressive.

Other incidental highlights on the festival’s margins: the post-funk, post-M-BASE-ish grooves of the vibrant downtown tent performance by Maroon, fueled by Benny Lackner’s incisive Herbie-inspired electronic keyboard approach and Hilary Maroon’s socially and melodically challenging vocal lines (speaking of vocalists pushing norms); and the Toronto-based rock collective Do Make Say Think, filling the cavernous Old Quebec Street venue with their massive sonic emotionalism, creating big undulating textures and crescendos in ways that establish kinship with new rock colorists like Tortoise and Polyphonic Spree.

Their massive crescendo sound paintings, lobbed into the post-midnight air, supplied a sonically huge, weirdly calm finale to another action-packed festival in Guelph.

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